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Jennie M. Helderman

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As the Sycamore Grows
by Jennie M. Helderman   

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As the Sycamore Grows is the true story–real names–of a seventeen year abusive marriage. A Sleeping with the Enemy in the Tennessee backwoods, as told by Ginger, who escaped, and Mike, who abused and holds no remorse.

This is Ginger’s story, and Mike’s. It didn’t begin with them and, despite Ginger’s prayers, it may not end with them.

Alabama. September, 2005

My assignment: A magazine story about poverty in Alabama. Fifteen hundred words. Real people, real names. Due in two weeks.

High stepping, but I knew where to look. I’d worked at walk-in social service agencies, taught school in rural Alabama, and clerked at debtors’ court. I cast a big net. Soon, the director of a women’s shelter suggested I meet someone on her staff.

That's how I came to know Ginger McNeil.
We met at a sandwich shop. A woman dressed in lime green and brown linen dashed through the door. I spotted her briefcase and guessed she was Ginger, hurrying from court in the next county.
The woman stopped short. The tentative expression that crossed her face as she scanned the room turned into a broad smile when she saw me waving from a back corner. Her brown page boy bounced against her collar as she made her way toward me, hand out, half-way through an introduction even before she reached my table.
"I'm late," she said, dropping into her chair, "but at least I'm not in jail."
I did a doubletake.
"Auto theft."
She dropped that bomb with a straight face.
"In the courthouse parking lot. Under the nose of the sheriff."
Her eyes were the color of coffee. I spotted mischief in them and smiled.
She leaned forward in her seat and lowered her voice.
"As I was racing to come here. My key wouldn't fit in the ignition. Then I heard a tap on the window and there stood the judge. I was in her car, not mine. I ran before the law came." She threw her head back and laughed at herself.
Her words flowed but she hung onto mine. She talked about her work with abused women and I could read on her face the satisfaction in it. I ate my chicken salad.
But abuse isn't about poverty. I didn't know.
We talked through lunch and refills of iced tea. Pleasant chatter, but the clock was ticking toward my deadline. I needed to find a source for my story.
Just as I thought we were finished, Ginger said, "I'm a former client of the shelter. I didn't have two dimes the day they took me in."
I settled back into my chair.
"I lived in a cabin in the woods, too poor to afford electricity and too afraid of my husband to leave. I even made my own soap."
"You made soap?"
"From hog fat. You have to butcher the hog first."
She told me she slaughtered, butchered and canned, shingled roofs and bushhogged land---whatever it took for her and her two sons to survive.
"And you were afraid?"
"He hit me."
This woman with a briefcase. What I heard clashed hard against the image before me.
She drew a map to the cabin, twenty miles north up the Natchez Trace, left on one dirt road, right on the next. I promised to meet her there the following Saturday.
The first road I found quickly, then I topped a rise and looked for the second. Nothing but scrub oaks, piney woods and red dirt lay ahead. Three times I drove back and forth before I spotted tire ruts between two scrawny oaks. Then the open gate appeared against the undergrowth.
The road wasn't hidden, but nothing marked or announced it. Had I not known there was a road and a house and once a family living back in the trees…that thought played in my mind even after I returned home late that afternoon.
The road dipped, rose and circled through the trees to a small clearing in the midst of sheds and a cabin. Ginger had heard my car and she bounded toward me. No briefcase today. Instead she wore jeans and heavy boots. The cabin behind her was a cracker box with a tin roof and board and batten walls. Leggy red geraniums strained out of a clay pot by its front door.
Ginger ushered me inside, past the black wall-to-wall wood stove that dominated the first room, and through two bedrooms hardly larger than their beds. Cozy. Neat. We popped cans of Diet Coke and stepped out into a dry day with no breeze on this last weekend of September.
"I've made changes," Ginger said. "What you see as a clearing used to be so thick with vines and thorn bushes, someone could be within thirty yards of the cabin and never see it. That's how Mike planned it. He didn't want company coming."
We strolled along the dirt road and picked through tall grass to a metal contraption attached to a hickory tree.
"See this winch? After Mike slaughtered a hog, we hoisted it here to cure. Later I ground the meat into sausage."
I pointed to a mound of gray ashes.  "And that fire pit.  Is that where you boiled lye with the fat to make soap?"
"No, boiling fat is too dangerous with children around.  I dissolved the lye in water, the cold method you know. "
All I know was that I’d never made soap from any method.
I’d visualized the cabin tucked behind tall trees in a deep forest, solitary and haunting, not cluttered with sheds and tools. I hadn't taken into account the realities of living off nothing, the making-do with whatever could be caught, grown, or bartered.
We stopped beside what looked to me like a concrete block chimney.
"This is a final exam." Ginger touched her hand to it. "It's a smokehouse. My boys were barely teens when they built it. Had to use solid geometry, math, and physics."
The boys had passed their test.
I failed mine I tried to operate the chicken plucker but, without a chicken, I didn't catch on. All I got was a red face while Ginger got a good laugh.
I was ready for shade. We opened more Cokes and settled into lawn chairs under hickory trees.
"You lived like pioneers or survivalists," I said. "Did you choose this way of life? How did you get here?"
"How long do you have?" Ginger laughed, then her face grew serious. "Was there a choice? Yes. I made my choice when I married Mike. He chose this way of life for us and I bowed to his decision. I never expected it to lead to such poverty."
She pushed her hair off her face and took a swallow of her Coke. "Strange as it may seem, poverty can be a choice, especially when it allows one person to control another."
We talked for more than an hour. When I stood up to leave, Ginger pointed to a path. "The root cellar is up there. You're welcome to see it. I don't go there."
"Not me. I'm claustrophobic."
I didn't question why Ginger shied away from the root cellar until I was in the car on my way home. I had an hour's drive to marvel at her skills and the strength and energy they required. And to ponder why they had lived as they did in a place so hard to find.
I wrote fifteen hundred words, but the story begged for more. Much more.
When I approached Ginger about a book, she mulled it over for several weeks, talking with her family over the Thanksgiving holiday, exploring her feelings and theirs.
Ginger and I met again at the sandwich shop. She was somber and thoughtful.
"When I sought safety at the shelter," she said, "my bed was waiting, the sheets already turned down. I had my own kitchen with a refrigerator and gas stove, and food, shelves and shelves of food, canned goods and food in boxes. Everything I needed. Somebody had prepared all that just for me and my kids."
She paused, her eyes focused over my left shoulder, locked on something I would never see. A slight smile crossed her face
"They didn’t know my name or that I’d be coming, but they did this for me,” she said. They anticipated what I would need. I’m still overcome with gratitude for this person ... these people. I’ve wondered how to repay them."
She placed both palms on the table, and her eyes suddenly shone with tears. "Telling this story is what I can do. It’s worth whatever the cost is to me."
Whatever the cost. Those words had little meaning for me. I had no measure then of how great the risks would be for Ginger.
We began regular conversations wherever we found a quiet private place, her house, a secluded corner at the public library, an artist friend’s studio. Sometimes we pored over photos, journals, letters, some dating back to childhood, some from her children to her, including the son she lost.
Ginger was unflinchingly honest, even when probing scarlet pain and remorse.
"Everything I was taught and believed and have done, it’s all part of me. It’s what made me a sitting duck for a man like Mike. And it’s where I drew my strength in the end."
Long before the magazine article turned into a book, I knew I had to speak with Mike. I had to allow him to tell his side of the story. So I phoned him, asked if he would meet with me. He agreed.
I was apprehensive. I had no idea what to expect of him, especially when I’d have to confront him with questions about physical abuse. Was I courting danger? I didn't know.
We met at a Waffle House in the late afternoon. His choice, his territory. He’s a regular there. But it’s a public place, which I hoped meant a safe place for me.
I stepped inside the doorway and stopped. Several men were hunched over their coffee and ashtrays at a gray counter. In booths opposite the counter, other men and a few women talked in twos and threes. Two men sat alone in two booths, the first with his nose in a book.
I approached the second, a man with gray-blonde hair, a white mustache and bushy eyebrows who was scrambling to a half-stance in the booth.
"You got me."
He smiled. His eyes were Paul Newman-clear-blue and his face was pleasant. He slid back to his seat even as we shook hands.
Firm handshake. Strong hands. Medium height, fit enough for a man in his fifties. Wearing a white dress shirt like he'd rather not, unbuttoned at the neck, the sleeves rolled up, and no undershirt.
"Have a seat."
I did and ordered coffee. I never glanced at the man reading the book. He was my husband, ready to come to my aid if needed.
There was no need.
Mike fidgeted. He smoked nine Winston Reds to three cups of black coffee. But he spoke candidly about his marriage to Ginger.
"Ginger was always out to please. Nobody in her growing up gave her approval, and I had to turn all that around. Most of my life I spent battling to get her to take up for herself."
He talked about picking peas and going to church, at no time showing any animosity toward his former wife, a woman whose public speeches identified him as a batterer.
Neither of us had mentioned the subject, though it was the reason I’d asked for this meeting.
"Ginger told me there was abuse, physical abuse. Was there?" I tensed, ready to flinch or duck.
"Yeah, there was." He thought for a minute. "One time I hauled off and slapped the fool out of her. She said I shoved her other times. But you have to remember, this was over twenty years."
"So you acknowledge there was abuse that included physical abuse?"
"That's what I said."
Matter-of-fact. Without apology.
I wrapped up the conversation, thanked him and was five steps toward the door when he called out to me.
"Hey! You didn't pay for your coffee."
Heads turned in my direction. I felt my face flush. "You're right. Sorry."
I settled my bill and left. Mike won our first encounter.
Two months later, with the article growing into a book, Mike emailed me that he wanted to participate. I didn’t know why and didn’t ask, afraid he’d reconsider and bolt.
We continued to meet at the Waffle House until its clatter chased us to quieter spots. By then I was less uneasy around him. He never denied any of the bad times. "Men will understand. Men know what the program is."
He has no remorse. "I wouldn’t change a thing if I could go back."
To Mike's thinking, he and Ginger couldn’t be where they are now without having experienced it all.
Mike has a story too. It trickled out as if from a medicine dropper. He announced early on he would have "his say," and one day he did just that. Mike took me inside his skin or let me think he did.
Either way, I came to appreciate what it revealed of him, even the parts that to this day I can’t fully comprehend.
This story has many voices. Ginger and Mike speak, as do their family, friends, coworkers, and court officials. They tell what they remember, or what they chose to divulge, about things that happened a long time back, then comment on them in the present. In some instances, I’ve changed names and physical characteristic to protect their privacy.
2005. That's when I came in. Not that I intended to do more than listen, record, and tell. But my questions took people back to old places, sometimes dark places, and this time I was along when they relived the memory. Sometimes they uncovered something new.
And so I joined the journey.

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